Pillow Rock Rapid on West Virginia’s Upper Gauley has been thought of as big, powerful, but relatively hazard free. That changed on October 10th when a veteran paddler died after pinning on a previously unknown undercut rock. Mark Hanna, 55, had been paddling the river for over a decade. His friends agree on these facts: At Pillow rock, running fourth in a group of 9, Mr. Hanna flipped on the big pressure wave that gives the rapid its name. He attempted 3-5 rolls as he washed downstream. As he did this, he was pushed to the right just downstream of Volkswagen Rock. He came out of his kayak just above a giant rock that guards the bottom of the right-side eddy. As he bailed out, his face appeared for an instant before he was pushed under the right corner of the rock (Circled in RED on the right). This is a photo taken at about 600 cfs; the Gauley was running at 2800 cfs on the day of the accident.
There were many paddlers on nearby boulders and in the eddy; they reacted quickly and made several very aggressive rescue attempts. One person pulled off Mr. Hannah’s PFD; another rescuer went under for a very long time and came up gasping. Finally a guide, belayed in a rescue PFD, went very deep and pulled Mr. Hannah free; he had been down for 5-6 minutes. CPR began at once and was continued by several medical people who happened to be there. They provided great care for 45 minutes, followed by oxygen and drugs administered by fast-arriving EMT’s. It was not enough to bring him back.